Show Me the Knowledge! How To Use Applied Concept Mapping to Solve Problems

July 24, 2011

10:00 am

This guest post was written by Brian Moon.

It all started using a simple concept in education – in order to know where to begin teaching any given subject, you first have to know what your students know. Concept maps, which are graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge in propositional form, have proven useful in education for nearly 40 years.

Since the 1990s, their usefulness in business applications has been refined, and their usage has grown dramatically thanks in part to the maturation of CmapTools, a freeware knowledge modeling kit developed at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition and funded by the Department of Defense.

To date, four international conferences have showcased inventive uses of concept mapping.

They are used to create common lexicons, design complex engineering products and cognitive systems, improve intelligence and organizational learning, manage ecosystems, and understand business models.

At the EPA, for example, concept mapping is being used to help decision-makers better understand the complex relationships between their decisions and the environment.

Applied Concept Mapping image 1

Applied concept mapping has also driven innovation at large companies like Procter and Gamble and Kodak, where design insights have emerged from succinct and clear expressions of what people know.

In the utilities industry, it is being used to capture and retain expertise before it rides off into the sunset of retirement. Constellation Energy, Westinghouse, and the Electric Power Research Institute are all ensuring baby boomers’ knowledge stays in-house through large-scale capturing efforts, or training the workforce on how to create their own maps.

Researchers are also exploring ways to mash concept mapping with other Web 2.0 technologies. Lead by the Army Research Laboratory, a team has developed a way for crisis responders to plan responses using concept mapping, Second Life, MediaWiki, and a Drupal-based portal. A key finding was the on-the-fly flexibility that concept mapping provides in a fluid, rapidly changing knowledge environment.

Applied Concept Mapping image 2

Interested in applying it at your company?  Creating and publishing concept maps can be easily done using CmapTools. Start with a blank map and a focus question, such as “What are the key challenges our business faces?”  Brainstorm the top concepts that come to mind and start linking and organizing them.  You can share your map with others, or invite them to create one with you (CmapTools enables collaborative sessions).

Like any business tool, advanced use takes training and practice. Highly skilled concept mappers juggle facilitation, mapping, and information management – in face-to-face, virtual, and even large group settings.

But start simply – show what you know.

Brian Moon is the Chief Technology Officer at Perigean Technologies LLC, and co-editor of Applied Concept Mapping: Capturing, Analyzing, and Organizing Knowledge. Contact him at

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